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Vietnam veteran proud of service in unpopular war

Vietnam veteran Ted Christianson in his rural Mitchell home. (Ross Dolan/The Daily Republic)

Ted Christianson’s Marine sergeant uniform still hangs in the closet of his rural Mitchell home.

The retired Blue Cross Blue Shield executive at one time considered keeping the lieutenant’s uniform he also earned during four and a half years with the Corps, but the non-commissioned side won out. Those three stripes were hard-won during 13 months in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, during a time he was promoted from private.

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Christianson, now 66, has photos of the lean, tough young Marine he once was. Raised in Fargo, N.D., he enlisted at 17 in 1964. Christianson and his buddies wanted a chance to get in on the action and use their training before the war was over.

“It was the attitude we had at the time,” he said during an interview last week, ahead of today’s Veterans Day holiday. “We thought it was just going to be a little firefight. We didn’t know it was going to drag on for 10 years.”

Christianson was swimming against an anti-war political current that would tear the country apart, but he felt confident then, as now, that he chose well. His personal heroes growing up were family members who served in the armed forces.

While many have called America’s involvement in Vietnam a major blunder, Christianson has never made apologies for his service.

“The idea of communist containment in southeast Asia was a lofty goal and something worth fighting for,” he said. His only regret is that the United States never finished the job and won the war.

After boot camp in California, he volunteered for Vietnam. Christianson and his buddies left San Diego for Okinawa, where they received combat training, and by 1965 they were in Vietnam. He was 18.

Back home, demonstrators were burning their draft cards to protest conscription and U.S. involvement. Some young men left for Canada to avoid the call-up.

In Vietnam, Christianson was opposed to the draft, but for different reasons. He saw some draftees as unmotivated and ill-disciplined.

“They did not perform well. They were a risk and security challenge for those around them,” he said.

Christianson and his fellow Marines made an amphibious landing near Da Nang in June 1965 and were assigned to secure the area of what would become a major American air base during the war. The North Vietnamese did what they could to stop construction.

“They hit us every night,” he said.

Later, he moved into areas such as Chu Lai and Phu Bai that would become combat hot spots during the war.

His closest call happened not during combat, but while using flamethrowers to clear jungle.

“It was 136 degrees and the flamethrowers were getting hot from overuse,” he recalled. One man next to him strapped on a tank of the overheated flammable mixture and it blew up. Remarkably, Christianson survived unharmed.

The young Marines didn’t know what to expect, he said. They did what they were told and worked with South Vietnamese marines to clear villages of Viet Cong fighters who would fight, fade into the jungle and later return.

Permanently holding any ground was difficult, said Christianson, who believes that as the will to prosecute the war evaporated, U.S. field commanders became hamstrung by political directives that hampered their effectiveness.

“What we won on the battlefield was lost in the political arena back here in the United States,” he said. “It was a politician’s war.”

Politics, however, was not the business of soldiers in the field.

“We didn’t have any classes debating the merits of going to war. It was our job,” Christianson said. “The training in the Marine Corps is for the glory of the Corps and your country. If you get into that mindset, you’re motivated to serve wherever you’re sent.”

Department of Defense statistics show that 58,220 members of the U.S. Armed Forces died in the war. The heaviest losses were suffered by the Army, which lost 38,224 soldiers, followed by the Marine Corps, which lost 14,844.

“They were the best and the brightest that America could offer,” Christianson said. “They had tremendous potential and were men we could have used in this country.”

Upon returning home to Fargo, N.D., Christianson attended North Dakota State University and later returned to the Marines, fully intending to make the Corps his life.

Vocal on campus, he became a symbol of the “establishment” and regularly took on all comers. The heated debates in the student senate seemed important then, he said with a smile, but it was the passion of youth.

“At the time they seemed like crucial, pivotal debates, but it all didn’t amount to a hill of beans.”

There were stories of servicemen who were disrespected upon their return, but Christianson was aggressive in defense of his beliefs.

“I remember going up to this hippie who was wearing a Marine overcoat and telling him, ‘You’re a disgrace to that uniform.’ His reply was, ‘I know. That’s why I wear it.’”

As a young gung-ho Marine, Christianson had no patience for those who complained they weren’t given recognition or thanks after their service

“I didn’t understand post-traumatic stress disorder at the time or those who whined they got no welcome home parade. Where did they promise you a parade when you signed up?”

He’s convinced a bigger purpose was at stake.

“If you take the position Vietnam wasn’t worth fighting for, you’ve decided that there are some people who are worth fighting for and others who aren’t — that some people’s freedom is more important than others,” he said.

Service has been a Christianson family tradition. Both his grandfathers served in France in World War I; his father served in Italy in World War II; and his son Kody, now 42, who lives in Lennox, served with the Marines in Iraq.

As a commissioned lieutenant in the Marines, Christianson served as an executive officer stationed at Quantico, Va. There he saw the aftermath of Vietnam in the wounded men he visited at Bethesda Naval Hospital. He called the plight of today’s wounded veterans a “desperate situation.”

“There’s a real concern out there that the Veterans Administration isn’t up to the task to serve our veterans’ needs, and we see that in the backlogged claims. We are not doing an adequate job serving our veterans as we promised we would.”

Christianson said he made the decision to leave the Corps when the demands of family life intervened. He went on to a 27-year career in medical insurance, eventually becoming vice president and chief operating officer of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota.

During his working years, Christianson regularly visited the Mitchell area for the pheasant hunting.

“I thought, ‘If the good Lord lets me live long enough, this is where I want to retire,’” he said.

Retirement became a reality in 2005 and Christianson and his wife Linda now live south of Mitchell and stay involved in the community and in touch with their three children.

He said his survival of numerous military engagements taught him that the Lord had a purpose for his life. A member of Mitchell’s Cornerstone Baptist Church, where he is a deacon, he has taught Bible study classes at the Davison County Jail. The classes are also part of his duties as a member of the Gideons, the organization best known for placing Bibles in hotel rooms.

“These are men at the end of their tethers who don’t know where to go and are reaching out,” he said. “I always feel but for the grace of God, go I. I could be there, too.”